Imagine for a moment that you are walking down a semi-busy street looking for somewhere to have lunch. As you wander you notice a man smiling at you from a shop window, you smile back. Your eyes move past him to a lady sitting at a table waiting. She lets out an exaggerated yawn and you find yourself doing the same. There’s a small child sitting next to her taking a sip of what looks to be ice cold water and you experience a prang of sudden thirst which has you reaching for your own water bottle. Then the silence is shattered as the person you are with explodes a loud cringing laugh. They are watching a funny video on their phone and motion for you to take a look. As you watch a hilarious but incredibly painful fall, you can almost feel the force of the impact within your own body.
Have you ever wondered why we automatically react in an almost identical way to other peoples actions; to the things we see, hear and feel?
What about those moments when we know what someone is about to say before they say it, the good or bad feelings we get about people when we meet them for the first time or the emotions we experience while watching a movie.
How is it possible to understand someone else’s thoughts, emotions or intentions? Are we psychic, do we have special powers, is it experience, instinct or just coincidence?
Psychologists, neuroscientists and philosophers have all wondered the same and they believe they have the answer. In the early 1990’s a team of Italian researchers at the University of Parma found individual neurons, called ‘mirror neurons’, in the brains of monkeys that fired both when a monkey grabbed an object and also when they watched another monkey grabbing that same object.
What are Mirror Neurons?
Mirror neurons are an intriguing class of brain cells that have now been directly observed in humans. A neuron is an electrically excitable cell in the brain that receives, processes, and transmits information through electrical and chemical signals. Mirror neurons are neurons that actually “mirror” or reflect the behaviour of someone else, allowing us to simulate that behaviour within ourselves.
“This discovery has changed the way we understand
how one being comprehends the internal world of another.”
Dr. Dan Siegel
Our brains imitate the brains of those that we are with in order to better understand them. When we interact with someone, we create a representation of their actions, sensations and emotions within our minds. To our brains, it is as if we are the ones who are moving, sensing and feeling.
Mirror neurons allow energy to flow back and forth between people. Our neurons “mirror” their neurons and their neurons “mirror” our neurons, creating a brain-to-brain connection, sort of like our own human, person-to-person wifi. Without any conscious effort, our brain instantly mirrors theirs, allowing us to truly connect, to empathise, to put ourselves in their shoes, understand their actions, feel their emotions, interpret their thoughts, assume their intentions, and see life from their perspective.
“We are hard-wired to perceive the mind of another being.”
Dr. Dan Siegel
Living in our social world requires us to be able to tune in to others. Mirror neurons make this possible and play a large role in empathy, social interaction, relationships, attachment, and language. We have all seen mirror neurons in action, time and time again, especially while caring for children as these cells are responsible for learning and imitation.
“Babies are born with two important skills that prepare them for empathy - the ability to begin to imitate facial gestures and the automatic response in which the cries of other infants causes them to cry as well. Both of these appear to involve mirror neurons.”
Dr. Bruce Perry
When my son was born he had a severe tongue tie which restricted the movement of his tongue. We had it revised and part of the treatment programme required us to poke our tongues out at him, with the hope that it would encourage him to poke his tongue out at us. Within no time at all he was doing the same and I could hardly believe how quickly my baby had learned to imitate me.
He was a sponge (still is) soaking up as much information as he could from his environment and those around him. When you think about it, that is exactly how we learn. We observe, we imitate and we repeat, until what we are trying to do comes naturally.
But the mirror neuron system doesn’t just create the human capacity to imitate behaviour, it allows for a simulation of another persons internal state, which means we have the ability to sense the feelings behind other peoples actions, behind our children’s actions.
When we observe, we observe the whole person; their actions, behaviour, body language, and facial expressions. All that information that we perceive from our external world, comes together and is reconstructed within us, on the inside. So when we observe the emotions of others it produces those same emotions within ourselves. An ‘inner imitation’ that we create which forms the basis for empathy. This is a phenomenon known as emotional contagion. In other words our emotions are contagious. We embody the feelings of those we are with.
As children and new parents we experience mirror neurons at great strength. During those moments of complete presence and true connection. When our hearts are open and we are filled with love and with wonder, we are completely tuned in to each other; we begin to synchronise.
“Mirror neurons create the capacity for mutual regulation, providing a basis for attachment. For example, when a baby smiles, the mirror neurons in his mother’s brain usually responds with a set of patterns that are almost identical to those that occur when Mom herself smiles. This mirroring ordinarily leads the mother to respond with a smile of her own. It’s not hard to see how empathy and the capacity to respond to relationships would originate here as mother and child synchronise and reinforce each other, with both sets of mirror neurons reflecting back each others joy and sense of connectedness.”
Dr. Bruce Perry
The tears of our children can strike our hearts and bring us to your knees while their laughter sends echos of joy to our souls. We are more connected with those that are closest to us. Our parents, siblings, partners and children but this connection extends beyond that of our immediate family, to all those we come in contact with.
Our feelings aren’t just contagious from one person to another. Each of us has the ability to affect or infect an entire group by lifting them up or bringing them down. Being with someone who is truly happy, loving, positive and inspiring, motivates our mirror neurons to create a similar response within our own brain, leading us towards these same emotions.
"When we attune with others we allow our own internal state to shift, to come to resonate with the inner world of another. This resonance is at the heart of the important sense of “feeling felt” that emerges in close relationships. Children need attunement to feel secure and to develop well, and throughout our lives we need attunement to feel close and connected.”
Dr. Dan Siegel
When we reflect our children -
Mirror neurons can work for us or against us. In many cases they work subconsciously without our awareness. But when we are mindful or conscious of our thoughts, emotions and actions, we can use mirror neurons to our advantage.
We can literally feel what our children are feeling which can be helpful but also pretty intense when they are in the middle of a melt down. Caring for children is emotionally challenging and it’s no surprise if we are simulating the rollercoaster of emotions they experience within ourselves. It helps to know that when we are struggling to regulate it may be because the emotions we are experiencing are not ours alone.
It takes a lot of effort and practice to remain calm when our children are stuck in intense frustration, anger or rage. But with awareness we gain the ability to find a space of peace within ourselves. When we can come from a place of understanding we are more able to support and guide our children with love until they regain their own sense of balance.
As a parent I have felt my children’s pain, experienced their excitement, shared their anxiety and rested in the love that we have for each other. As parents and carers we know. We know our children. We know when things are ok, and we know when they’re not. We feel the invisible pull, the tugs on our hearts, the knots in our stomachs and the chills up our spines. Before science uncovered mirror neurons we referred to this ‘knowing’ as intuition or instinct, and now we know we can trust it. But fear and trust can not coexist. That is why it is vital that we are aware, mindful and attuned because when we are, we can feel our way through.
When our children reflect us -
There’s a saying that you become like the 5 people you spend the most time with. As children, most of what we mirror is what we see in the people closest to us – our parents, family members, teachers, and friends - Our children reflect and magnify who we are, how we feel and what we do.
With this understanding, caring for children becomes less about teaching them and more about our own way of ‘being’. Less about enforcing and more about modelling. Less about control and more about guidance. Less about regulating their emotions and more about regulating our own. It’s less about them and more about us.
Managing our own emotions and being mindful of our behaviour is the key to teaching our children how to manage theirs. Children are great imitators, so let’s give them something great to imitate.
If we are wired to automatically internalise the behaviours and mental states of others, then what does this suggest about the people we associate with, the environments we immerse ourselves in, and the content we absorb through media eg. violent television programmes and video games?